This is one of the key steps in the whole learning-to-read process.
Louise Park's most recent book, 7 steps to get your child reading, promises to give you the strategies that will lead your child to an irreplaceable love of reading. She is an acknowledged literacy expert and widely published children's author, and has been involved in education and publishing for more than 30 years.
Louise very kindly agreed to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer some literacy-related questions.
What inspired you to write your book, 7 steps to get your child reading?
I’m in and out of schools all the time and I’m surrounded by Generation Alphas—children born between 2010 and 2024. I run reading and writing residencies that go for weeks at a time, I work with [teaching] staff on the challenges of teaching writing. I’ve been observing first-hand the changing landscape and the impact it’s having on our literacy levels and I find it very worrying. I wanted to address this, and make it easy and crystal clear for parents to ensure their child doesn’t become one of those alarming literacy statistics. I wanted to arm them with the facts, give them simple steps they can take to ensure reading success, and support them in supporting their little Gen As on their reading journeys.
How have literacy problems changed over the years?
I could write a whole book on this . . . hang on, I just did!
Our Gen As are the swiper, pincher, tapper cohort. The first generation to be born into a world of devices. The generation gurus tell us they are the group that will have the greatest digital literacy of any generation and the shortest attention spans and social skills as a result. So yes, they’re coming to the reading challenge from a unique position.
More often than not there’s an imbalance between technology and books in their lives. We know that books help children develop language skills, expand their vocabularies, give them ways to think about our world and develop critical thinking skills. They expand their worlds, fuel their imaginations, provide opportunities to develop empathy and to understand moral and ethical choices, and that’s just my starting list!
Children arriving at school not having had enough experience with books will be behind those who have. Research shows that children who start school with no or minimal literacy skills struggle to close the gap with their peers, and that the gap may continue to grow. Furthermore, they may never catch up unless they are identified and supported as early as possible.
But it’s not just the lack of books that’s changing the game, it’s the lack of writing by hand. Little fingers are not doing much gripping and scribbling anymore because they’re too busy tapping, pinching and swiping and parents aren’t aware of the detrimental effect it’s having on their ability to learn to read, spell and write.
Reading and writing go hand in hand, they are the breathing in and breathing out of literacy acquisition. Think about it: as children write and make letters, as they write and join these letters together to make words, as they write those words to make sentences, they are creating something they can read, because they wrote it. It’s their thoughts, their words, their spellings, their learnings—and all the while, they’re laying it down in their muscle memory and committing it to their long-term memory. This is crucial to learning to read and the message is clear: children who begin school with limited writing experience and too much reliance on screens are the group most at risk of falling behind in learning to read and performing at a standard year level.
There is so much more I could say here about the role of writing by hand and about the other issues Gen A have to tackle, but the book covers them all.
How about the way we teach literacy skills? Has that changed?
I think schools are doing everything they can to ensure students get the best start on their literacy journey and go on to become competent readers. Interestingly, schools still vary in how they tackle this area.
Over the decades, methods have changed, teaching philosophies have come and gone, but at the core of a sound literacy program are consistent, enduring fundamentals regarding learning to read. These are the things that never change even if the delivery does, and the best reading techniques are unpacked in this book.
Rather than getting bogged down with teaching preferences, I’d prefer to highlight how important the home environment is and the role family has in preparing and nurturing a reader to become a competent and enthusiastic one. Because I believe sharing this information with parents is key to a child’s acquisition of literacy skills.
Why are books so important in literacy development?
Can I share a few facts with you from my book? I think they’ll say it all.
Fact #1: Children who don’t have books of their own perform significantly lower in reading tests, are nearly four times more likely to read below their accepted age standard, enjoy reading less, are less likely to read and are less confident readers.
Fact # 2: One 20-year study conducted the largest and most thorough investigation ever carried out on what influences the level of education a child will attain. Researchers were shocked to learn that books in the home had more effect on children’s educational attainment than other more predictable and oft-cited factors like family income and education levels of the parents.
We know that sharing books from a young age promotes language development and other early literacy skills—books are the inoculation against an illiterate society! Know this, a child not exposed to books will struggle. They will arrive at school already behind their peers and that gap will get wider and wider without early intervention.
What about the types and style of stories (fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, comics, etc)?
Once a child can read, I’m a firm believer in letting them make informed choices about their reading material. In letting them choose what they will read you are empowering them and giving them ownership in the process. This means they’re invested in their reading material. And this means they’ll take more risks and explore more books in their curating and culling process than they’d normally come across. They’ll talk to friends about their choices and what they thought was good and why.
What I don’t like seeing is a child stuck in a certain place which blocks reading growth. I see lots of children who get hooked on books with small bites of text or books that are designed to get them reading. These books are critical, and the good ones do their job brilliantly, but kids aren’t meant to stay with them. They’re meant to move on but I see far too many kids not moving on.
For example, they’ll read the first of Andy Griffiths' Treehouse series at age eight and still be reading only books like this at age 13. How are these children going to cope with the reading demands of high school? How are they going to become fully literate?
By all means, let them get lost in their favourite comics, joke books or whatever their safe space is, but help them to challenge and extend themselves: to explore widely and be exposed to as many genres and types of reading material possible, including graphic novels, comics, surfing mags, the news feed, whatever!
Why do toddlers and preschoolers want to read the same book/story over and over again, and what are the benefits of doing so, if any? Should parents encourage it?
Don’t you find it intriguing that some parents are totally fine with their children watching the same cartoon or film, or playing the same computer game over and over, yet when they revisit a book over and over again they think it’s not a helpful thing to do and push them towards a new book every time?
Repeated exposure is a wonderful teacher—so silent and unobtrusive, like teaching by stealth! Familiarity is invaluable for kids—when children reread books that they love, they begin to memorise the text and "read" the book from memory before they can actually read. This is one of the key steps in the whole learning-to-read process. Doing this gives them a sense that they are a reader and they’re practising an important skill.
And while they’re doing it they are cementing a wealth of knowledge about the reading process as well. So yes, encourage them to do it. Only good things can come from this and they certainly wouldn’t be revisiting these books if they were disliked, I can promise you.
If there’s only one thing parents can do when it comes to teaching literacy in young children, what is it?
Share books with them! As many and as often as they can.